Cape Fear Character Transformations




The novel  “Cape Fear,” originally titled “The Executioners,” by John D. MacDonald is the basis for the both film versions of the novel.  MacDonald’s novel is more of an outline for director Martin Scorsese’s version of Cape Fear (1991), while Thomas’s Cape Fear (1962) follows the storyline of the novel closely and maintains the tone of Macdonald’s novel.  Scorsese’s adaptation is a modern and more realistic take of the story, and looks deeply into other characters besides Sam Bowden. The audience is shown that Sam and his family aren’t a picture perfect family like seen in both “Cape Fear,” the novel and Cape Fear (1962).  Instead these characters are flawed and have problems, making them seem relatable.  The transformation of the female characters in Cape Fear (1991) is refreshing change because the characters transform from static characters to dynamic characters.


Danielle (Juliette Lewis) is the daughter of Sam Bowden, in the novel and previous film version she is changed drastically.  In Cape Fear (1962) Nancy was the original name for Danielle, and Nancy is the epitome of the “perfect daughter.” She always listens to her parents, does well in school, and is not rebellious in any way.  Danielle, however can be rebellious, and has a far more important role in the new version. In Cape Fear (1991) Danielle, seems to be slightly older than Nancy, and she definitely acts so.  The audience learns that she was caught smoking marijuana, which would never have been in previous versions of the story.  Her curiosity often leads her to trouble, for insistence when she doesn’t immediately leave Cady in the theater and even lets him kiss her.  She even defends Cady, and at first doesn’t think he’s much of threat, even though Sam warns her. Although Danielle has more edge, she is still innocent and naive Danielle is shown wearing white often, which represents her innocence.


Leigh is another character that is considerably different from the novel and early adaptation.  Jessica Lange portrays Leigh, and she is modernized and seems like a strong woman.  Unlike the other adaptations, Leigh has a job as a graphic artist, and she has a certain spark to her.  She smokes cigarettes frequently, and she is almost sarcastic at times, often rolling her eyes at Sam.  Her relationship with Sam is far more complicated, because of Sam’s past infidelity.  Leigh doesn’t quite trust Sam, causing a strain on their marriage.  The two frequently argue, and Leigh is not afraid to speak her mind to Sam.


Overall, Scorsese’s adaptation was successful, because it modernized the story for a new generation. Characters in Cape Fear (1991) are dynamic unlike the other versions.  The audience gets to see all sides of the characters, which the other adaptations failed at doing.